WORLD

ONE NATION UNDER SARKO?

Maybe. It depends on who wins the legislative election next month.

PAUL WELLS May 21 2007
WORLD

ONE NATION UNDER SARKO?

Maybe. It depends on who wins the legislative election next month.

PAUL WELLS May 21 2007

ONE NATION UNDER SARKO?

Maybe. It depends on who wins the legislative election next month.

WORLD

PAUL WELLS

Even as he addressed his ecstatic supporters on the night he has dreamed about all his life, France’s newlyelected president knew his victory was not yet complete and that one more campaign, short and intense, lay ahead.

“The French people have spoken,” Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, told an election-night crowd and the nation, watching on TV. “They have chosen to break with the ideas, habits and behaviour of the past. I want to rehabilitate work, authority, morality, respect and merit. I want to restore honour to the nation and to national identity.” This was not empty rhetoric: Sarkozy’s agenda is, in concrete terms, as ambitious as any France has seen since Charles de Gaulle’s. And the scale of Sarkozy’s victory was resounding. Voting in near-record numbers, the French had given him 53 per cent of the vote, six points ahead of his once-formidable opponent, the socialist Ségolène Royal. Even a majority of women voted for Sarkozy, despite his brash demeanour and famous temper.

But France’s new president is not out of the woods yet. When he designed the constitution for France’s Fifth Republic half a century ago, de Gaulle gave the president of the Republic extraordinarily strong executive powers, on two reasonable assumptions. One was that for many years the president would be de Gaulle himself. The second assumption was that the separately elected legislature and its prime minister would share the president’s party affiliation and agenda. When they do, it is a sweet gig to be France’s president. When they don’t, a president and prime minister from different parties face off in the nightmarish gridlock known as “cohabitation.” France’s legislative elections are barely a month away. The first round of voting is on June 10, with a second runoff round a week later. Three times in the past, in 1981,1988 and 2002, legislative elections have followed presidential elections. Each time the president’s party won the majority in the National Assembly. That seems likely, but not guaranteed, to happen again this time. A poll released on the evening of Sarkozy’s victory showed his centre-right UMP party at 34 per cent in voter support for the parliamentary election, with Royal’s Socialists at 29 per cent and the centrist UDF party at 12 per cent. The pros-

pect of defeat following defeat has accentuated the Socialists’ recent tendency toward infighting. Le Monde quoted remarks by an aghast Laurent Fabius, a former Socialist prime minister, as he listened to Royal’s brisk and upbeat concession speech: “She seems to want to continue in the same direction. But if we use the same methods in the legislative elections that we used in the presidential election, it’ll be the same result. And worse!”

Sarkozy has never been one to take his victories for granted. So as he vanished on Monday morning to a secret location to prepare his transition to power—the location didn’t stay secret for long; on Monday afternoon Le Figaro reported he was in Malta—the next steps in his sweeping agenda must have been very much on Sarkozy’s mind. On May 16 he will replace Jacques Chirac, his former mentor with whom he had an increasingly competitive relationship, as president. He’ll name a 15-person cabinet and a prime ministermost likely his former cabinet colleague François Fillon, a fellow economic reformer whose favourite saying is, “France can handle the truth.”

With a little luck, Sarkozy’s party will hold its majority in the June parliamentary elections. Then, if his campaign rhetoric is any indication, the new president will unleash an unprecedented wave of reform across France. Overtime work, beyond the standard 35-hour workweek, will be tax-free. The massive civil service will be cut. Measures will be introduced to make hiring—and firing—employees easier, in a bid to loosen up the country’s sclerotic labour market. Already on Sunday night, people close to Sarkozy were predicting the reforms would have to be implemented

quickly, before union and student groups can sap the momentum in favour of change.

Those changes will be watched closely in Canada, where two prominent reform prime ministers—Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harperhave already developed close ties to Sarkozy’s entourage.

The Chrétien government’s success in eliminating budget deficits while cutting unemployment and repeatedly winning elections is a subject of considerable fascination in France. Several French notables, including the senator Jean Arthuis and the financier Arnaud Lagardière, have visited the Ottawa office of Heenan Blaikie, the law firm where Chrétien now works, to seek his counsel. Last December, Chrétien met Sarkozy in Paris, not for the first time, after the former Canadian prime minister delivered a speech to conservative-French politicians on a favourite theme: “How to Implement Reforms and Not Lose Elections.”

Sources in Ottawa say Sarkozy’s advisers have already developed good working ties to Harper’s Prime Minister’s Office, where Sarkozy is seen as a potentially valuable ally on matters of trade and foreign affairs. (Sarkozy is not bashful about proclaiming his admiration for the United States, but he has said he would have followed Chirac’s lead in keeping

French troops out of the Iraq war.) One source close to Harper said Sarkozy regards Canada as a natural entrée for any French leader who seeks a closer relationship with the countries of North and South America.

As a consequence, the choice of a new Canadian ambassador to Paris is said to be unusually important. The current ambassador, Claude Laverdure, a long-time foreignpolicy adviser to Chrétien, may not last in Paris much longer. Among those who have been named as possible replacements is Bernard Lord, the former Conservative premier of New Brunswick. If Harper prefers a career diplomat, it is thought he may opt for Marc Lortie, the former press secretary to Brian Mulroney who was Chrétien’s personal representative to the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, and who now serves as Canada’s ambassador to Spain.

But any emissary from Canada can only watch, along with everyone else in France, as a brash and ambitious new president begins a climactic confrontation against the country’s durable status quo. That Sarkozy made it this far is a testament to his formidable political smarts and to a dawning realization among ordinary French citizens that the country is due for reform. But the real test for the president, and for his people, lies ahead. M